Comparing Pain


Comparative suffering is something that we see all the time, it’s basically when people are putting a pain on a scale and ranking it along with saying ‘This is worse than this and this is not as bad as this’. That leads to more suffering. That can be so harmful in two ways because I see it happening all the time and it’s either somebody neglecting their own pain or they are making themselves a victim over somebody else. It drives me nuts in both ways because I hear people say things when they’re going through something that really sucks and they say ‘well other people have it worse’. They are not validating what they're going because ‘there is war in some parts of Africa’ or whatever. Okay, but what you are going through has nothing to do even with your neighbor who might have ten thousand times worse situation but that doesn’t take away any of your pain just because someone has more pain. Your reality and perception is your experience in life and what you feel is valid and has nothing to do with anybody else. Then there are other people on the spectrum that are like ‘You don’t know what I’m going through’ they glorify and exaggerate what they’re going through and say ‘You can’t be upset about this because this is going on with me’. Yes, I can be upset, that’s my life and my experience and what makes me feel pain. You can see this in divorces where the now ex-partners are mad at each other over things and they try to put blame on the other person. One person always feels like they deserve to be the person who gets the most sympathy from others because they were wronged.

The way that we’re raised has a huge role in this as well. At some point, we have all heard an adult around us when we were younger say ‘stop whining’ or ‘stop doing this’ because kids in X country are starving or experiencing this or whatever happens to be. We’re conditioned to compare suffering in that way and I think that ultimately causes more suffering and it can be really cruel.

Quote from Brené Brown that I really love about comparative suffering is “There's one thing I've learned over the past decade, it's that fear and scarcity immediately trigger comparison, and even pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed or ranked. [However,] the refugee in Syria doesn't benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from your neighbor who's going through a divorce.

We come up with reasons as to why not to be empathetic towards people in our lives or showing them kindness and I think that any of us wouldn’t consciously say “I’m not gonna show you kindness because there are people who have it way worse than you” but there is that subconscious level of “ugh it’s not that bad, we all go through that’. It’s subconsciously rating the pain from the people around us on a scale, which is not okay. What that does is it allows you to avoid what would it be like to have empathy and compassion for somebody because that takes work and often it can be uncomfortable. You don’t always know if this is somebody who is right in front of you that you’re having experience with, you don’t know how somebody is going to respond and so all of this fears can really start to play a role in how you are acting and the easy way out is to just judge everything.

If you think about a time that you have ever suffered or been in pain and somebody tries to diminish it and say “snap out of it don’t feel that way”, that is so cruel. Even worse when they don’t realize they’re doing it and they say “At least it’s not this” or they something out of their own discomfort to feel better “It’s okay. It’s not bad”. Whether it’s intentional by saying “It’s not that bad, come on it happens every day to people” that doesn’t mean that it makes it feel any better because this happens every day to people.

That stems from our desire to wanna fix things and make things better for people and so often, you just can’t make it better, you can’t fix the situation. What really has to happen is you need to meet the person, where they are and really dig into empathy and compassion. I really love how Brene Brown talks about the difference between empathy and sympathy because she describes empathy as creating connection and sympathy creates disconnection. She laid out empathy as “(1) the ability to take the perspective of another person or recognize their perspective is their truth. (2) Staying out of judgment — not easy when you enjoyed it as much of us do. (3) Recognizing emotion in other people. (4) And in communicating that.” She says: “Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice. Because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”

It's totally okay to express that you don't know what to say but that you are glad or grateful to be holding that space with them and I think that within itself goes such a long way. The difference between the approach of sympathy and empathy is that sympathy is feeling sorry for someone and really keeping them at a distance, but it doesn't make you a bad person to be sympathetic, we are often trained to be that way. You have to fight against being sympathetic, you have to choose to be empathetic, it's such a natural tendency in our culture to see somebody going through something and be like *pat on the shoulder* 'That sucks' and then be uncomfortable and awkward because talking about our feelings and emotions that's just something that's not super respected per say in our culture. Knowing how to respond to it is just uncomfortable and awkward and probably not taught how to do it.

When people experience a loss specifically you see this in movies and tv-shows, people are inundated with all these casseroles from neighbors and people in those stories are often resentful of those casseroles coming in, they might not be saying it out loud but the tone is 'Why are you sending me this, this doesn't matter'. I really am of a different mindset when it comes to that because I think what that casserole making and giving embodies is community coming together around someone who has experienced a tragedy, who is suffering and often when that happens your basic needs are going out the window. You are not showering, you are not eating and not thinking about the things that you typically think about because you're in so much pain and suffering. I think what the casserole represents is so much larger it's somebody doing something in a moment where so often people do nothing and when people are in a place of suffering what is so valuable is the step of doing something. Think of the basic needs as a human and how could you deliver a basic need to them or think about who they are as a person and what's something that you could contribute to that because those are the things that people are going to remember and maybe they won't fully notice it or appreciate it in the moment but those are the acts of love and care that really help move a person forward into their space of healing.

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